The Magazine

I Remember Marlon

George Englund's tale of a difficult friendship with Marlon Brando.

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
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The Way It's Never Been Done Before

My Friendship with Marlon Brando

by George Englund

HarperEntertainment, 292 pp., $25.95

MARLON BRANDO LEFT HIS INDELIBLE imprint on two generations of American actors--and not just American: Actors from nearly every country reflect something of his style. He was an icon, for good or for ill, and icons by their nature tend to be largely mythic beings, receiving all manner of interpretation. Brando is certainly no exception.

The director George Englund was a friend from their first meeting in 1956 at a Hollywood party where Brando sought Englund's help in fending off an exceedingly determined Anna Magnani. "I need some protection," said Marlon.

So he took Englund (and Englund's then-wife Cloris Leachman) along with Magnani, insisting he had to drive the Englunds home to Fresno because of some strange medical condition of Englund's eyes that prevented his driving at night.

Despite Magnani's angry protests, Brando dropped the actress off at her hotel and began a five-decade friendship with Englund.

From that night until Brando's death in June 2004 at age eighty--when Englund was the last person to see him--the two men's lives intertwined. Englund's The Way It's Never Been Done Before: My Friendship with Marlon Brando is no conventional movie-star biography. Englund confines himself to recollections of moments he and Brando shared. Whole decades pass with hardly more than a linking sentence. There's no feel of prettying or whitewashing of the past.

It was Brando who suggested Englund's writing some years ago. "Write about anything, write about something you know," suggested Brando. And so, without telling Brando, Englund began putting down on paper the scenes, incidents, and conversations he and Brando had been having over the decades. Some of the scenes are grim, such as Englund's final visit, when Brando had oxygen tubes in his nose and was suffering from considerable pain. Others are disarmingly blithe, such as Brando's first date in Hollywood with the Indian actress Anna Kashfi, a woman he would marry and divorce within a little more than a year. Yet others balance comedy and a kind of ghastly horror, such as a business meeting with Englund, Brando, and his father, then CEO of Brando's production company--when, as Englund describes it, "a quiet madness prevailed."

And then there is the night in Washington, a few weeks after President Kennedy's assassination, when Englund brings Brando over to Averell Harriman's house, where the president's widow and her sister Lee Radziwill are staying. After quite a few martinis, they decide to go out for dinner. Englund calls the Jockey Club, arranges for a quiet table in the rear, but their walking through the main room causes a sensation and before they can order, word comes that the press is on its way. What ensues is a hectic scene, followed by a touching recollection of Jackie Kennedy recalling her husband's death to Englund while Brando and her sister are in the kitchen making omelets.

One thing that drew the two men together was the difficult relations they had with their fathers--or, in Englund's case, no relations. Englund had actually not known his father, an alcoholic who dropped out of his son's life when the boy was six months old. As for Brando, Englund writes, "Constantly in his youth Marlon was fed his father's anger and alcoholism, forced to endure the man's absences and learn of his infidelities. When his father did come home, he was derisive, dismissive, and derogatory about his son's ability to do anything. Mountainous anger seized up in Marlon and for the rest of his life he would lay a lick on anyone who even resembled a father or held a father's authority." As for Englund, "Throughout my life I searched for my father, I searched for him in Marlon. Marlon sought a better father in me."

As for their mothers, Englund has dedicated his book to them, noting over time he has increasingly felt his mother's hand on his life. "Marlon's mother was too often lost to him, too often in an alcoholic mist outside his reach, but her maternal force was in him. The confused, gnarly man who was his father, that man was plainly not the source of Marlon's talent. I believe the source was his mother."

Then too both Englund and Brando had sons of their own. "Marlon and I both intended to be good fathers. Whatever happened later, we began with high resolve." One of Englund's sons died of an overdose of heroin in a dingy hotel in New York, and Brando was not quite the supportive friend Englund might have expected. But he endeavors to understand and seems to realize what Brando must have been experiencing with two of his own children.